Trail Riding at Gotno Morgan Guest Ranch, Florence, Arizona

We were headed for the Gotno Morgan Guest Ranch in Florence, Arizona, for a trail ride with our horses, approximately 65 miles northwest of Tucson and 68 miles southeast of Phoenix, on U.S. Highway 79. Turn east on the Florence-Kelvin Highway, drive six m

We were headed for the Gotno Morgan Guest Ranch in Florence, Arizona, for a trail ride with our horses, approximately 65 miles northwest of Tucson and 68 miles southeast of Phoenix, on U.S. Highway 79. Turn east on the Florence-Kelvin Highway, drive six miles, turn north at Gotno Ranch Rd., then go one mile north and one-half mile west.

Preparing for a vacation before Christmas had kept us busy 24/7: charting the weather along the route, getting the horses’ papers in order, Christmas shopping, wrapping presents, family and social gatherings, and packing.

But we felt the stress melt away as we hummed down the highway, looking forward to warmer climates and beautiful trail-riding scenery. We left behind a pile of brightly wrapped presents to open with family and friends upon our return.

False Starts
Less than 10 miles from home, I cried, “What’s that noise?” as a high-pitched whine and whoosh of escaping air hissed from under the hood of our Ford 550 diesel. Ray replied, his spirit deflated, “We blew a turbo-booster hose.”

We turned back, unloaded the horses, and raised the hood to assess the damage. Optimistically, Ray said, “I can fix this.” With the hose reconnected, we re-loaded the horses and headed out only to have the hose blow a second time 20 miles from home. Ray tied the hose back on with baling wire and drove to the Ford dealership in Santa Fe, where we bought a new hose and decided to drive home and unload the horses once again.

After installing the new hose, we took the truck and trailer for a test drive without the horses. No problems. We loaded up and drove to an elevation of 7,000 feet, confident the hose would finally stay in place.

A Thorny Landscape
When we arrived at the Gotno Ranch, it was dark and a relatively warm 59 degrees compared to the frigid Santa Fe temperatures. The colorful Arizona sunset, Christmas lights strung along fences, and an invitation to Christmas Eve dinner with Ben and Deb Smith, the friendly ranch owners, made it especially wonderful to be there.

Sunday morning, Christmas Eve, was cooler than expected in this Arizona desert, but the sun warmed the area quickly. Just before noon, Ben saddled his mule, Molly, and led us on a trail ride into open Bureau of Land Management country east of the Gotno Ranch.

Every tree, shrub, and cactus in the Arizona desert has sharp thorns. The chainfruit cholla, a.k.a. “jumping cactus,” seems to jump at whatever touches them. Unwary horses kick at loose spines, which then cling to their legs. Ben used a plastic comb to flick off the thorny hitchhikers.

We rode onto higher ground where we viewed verdant desert vegetation and ragged rocky hills on the horizon. Trails were flat and easy with elevations between 1,500 and 1,700 feet. Ray wore a red shirt and Ben wore a green one – how appropriate for our Christmas Eve ride.

The next day, Ray and I explored more desert on a 3½ hour ride. At first, we stayed on wide, well-traveled dirt roads. Our apprehension of the forbidding cacti changed as we cut cross country and realized how easily we could avoid brushing against the thorny spikes.

The sky was bright blue, and the temperature perfect for riding. We rode to the top of a small, rocky hill and ate lunch while gazing across miles of lovely landscape dotted with giant saguaro cactus.

The Superstition Mountains
For our next ride, Ben suggested we trailer to the Superstition Mountains near Apache Junction, about 45 miles from the Gotno Ranch. In Apache Junction, we took Highway 88 past mile marker 200, turned right onto Forest Rd. 78, then drove approximately three miles to the large equestrian staging area at First Water Trail Head.

We tacked up and rode a quarter mile on the trail paralleling F.R. 78 to the next parking lot. This route features detailed trail descriptions. We chose Trail 104 to Trail 241 (an eight-mile loop across Black Mesa), with a return on Trail 236, which would take us over just a tiny portion of the vast Superstition Wilderness.

The Superstition Mountains are at the southwest corner of the Superstition Wilderness, one of eight wilderness areas located within the Tonto National Forest, and a popular recreation area during fall, winter, and spring. (In summer, temperatures range between 100 and 115 degrees).

On our ride, it was a perfect 65 degrees, with a cool breeze and spectacular scenery. Giant boulders rose on each side of the trail. Friendly hikers stopped to chat about our horses and to inform us about trail conditions farther along.

We rode among dignified saguaro cactus, giant pancake prickly pear in deep shades of purple, huge barrel cactus standing sentry on the Black Mesa trail, the taunting “jumping cactus,” and Christmas cholla with tiny red berries.

On top of Black Mesa, after a narrow, twisting climb, we enjoyed a 360-degree pristine view of the mighty, awesome Arizona desert. This trail, which ranges from easy to moderately difficult, with elevations ranging from 2,000 to 3,500 feet, is very rocky; horseshoes are strongly recommended.

Desert Beauty

After three days in the desert, I understood how one could fall in love with this unique, heartbreakingly beautiful landscape. During our stay over Christmas week, the weather ranged from 38 degrees in early morning up to 70 degrees mid-afternoon.

The day we left, it was rainy and very cool; weather reports out of Santa Fe predicted the area would soon be hit by the biggest snowstorm in recorded history. It took two days to negotiate closed roads and snowstorms, but we finally made it home to 24 inches of fresh snow.

We were sad to leave the peaceful beauty of the Arizona desert and our new friends at the Gotno Ranch. We left with a deep appreciation for Arizona’s vast desert beauty. We look forward to returning soon and exploring more of the Arizona wilderness.

For more information on the Gotno Morgan Guest Ranch, call (520) 868-2351, or visit